Los Angeles is a continent away from Sara Hurwitz’ controversial ordination as MaHaRaT by Rabbi Avi Weiss. As a result, almost no one here in the West seems to yet know or care. Perhaps the only advantage of living in this parallel Modern Orthodox universe is that it affords one the possibility of viewing this event, along with the discussions it has generated from, well, a distance. And from a distance, it appears to me that much of the discussion that this event has generated – discussion about the propriety of ordaining women – is actually missing the mark. I see Sara Hurwitz’ quasi-semicha as indeed sparking several important discussions, but none of them about women and ordination per se.
Chief among the discussions that seems to largely miss the point, is the “halachik discussion”, i.e. the discussion as to whether there is a halachik barrier to a woman serving as a rabbi. To folks who have served in the congregational rabbinate, the question seems almost nonsensical. I have been blessed to serve as a congregational rabbi for the last 19 years. The sections of Shulchan Aruch that have governed my work are entirely egalitarian. The laws of visiting the sick and of comforting the mourner, the laws of rebuking people without publicly embarrassing them, and the laws of tzedaka and proper treatment of synagogue employees are not gender-sensitive. The Torah that God has merited me to teach has been drawn exclusively from texts that Modern Orthodox Jews believe are open to everyone regardless of gender. Ninety percent of the answers that I have given to questions of practical halacha have come straight out of the standard halachik literature, and the other ten percent – questions that I felt truly needed adjudication – I submitted to people who are formally authorized to render decisions. The laws of Helping Jews Work Together On Committees are not halachikly codified at all. The question as to whether a woman may be appointed to a position of srara (of authority over a community) has been effectively addressed through the halachik recognition that any leader who is freely elected by (and can be fired by) a community, and whose authority is shared with lay-leadership, is not in fact exercising srara.
What are the important discussions that ought be raised by Sara Hurwitz’ ordination? I’d propose there are three:
(1) Are we as committed as we should be to having the best leaders that we can have?
The American Orthodox community, now as always, is in need of creative, visionary, dedicated rabbinic leadership. (The looming day school crisis underscores this need well.) Arguably, we have been facing our challenges in recent years with much of one hand tied behind our backs, as half of our population (the female half) has not been encouraged or been given the necessary training to provide the sort of broadly-impacting religious leadership that is invested in the rabbinate. The discussion we ought be having is not about “can women be rabbis?”, rather “are we serious about having the best possible religious leadership?” Assuming that we are, I propose that we ought be opening the rabbinate to women not to address feminist concerns, but in order to have the best chance at producing the rabbinic leaders that we need. This isn’t a “women’s issue”. It’s a leadership training issue.
(2) Are we prepared to correct a fundamental illogic in our approach to Talmud Torah?
Opening the Orthodox rabbinate to women is also about fixing a glaring inconsistency in our educational philosophy. We are today ideologically committed to the proposition that Talmud Torah is an equal-opportunity value, and that all Jewish people should pursue the study of whatever area of Torah they desire. This obviously includes the kind of intensive study of practical halacha that characterizes a semicha curriculum. We already confer degrees on men or women who have completed courses of study in TaNaCH, Jewish philosophy, or even Talmud. But for reasons more social/political than logical or fair we won’t do so for Jews who have completed the requisite study of practical halacha, when those Jews lack a “y” chromosome. This arbitrary discriminatory practice reflects poorly on us, and for the sake of our communal integrity and the uprightness of our educational system needs to be addressees one way or another.
(3) Recognizing Sara Hurwitz’ ordination not as a revolution but as a challenge
A third meaningful discussion that we ought to have is about the twin realities that over the last decades we have created a community in which Orthodox women have become more deeply educated, have taken some leadership roles in educational and communal settings (and for that matter in rabbinic settings as well in several instances though usually without a title), and that our community has changed for the better as a result. Our schools have become infinitely more creative, our homes are religiously much deeper, and our communal stands against sexual abuse and recalcitrant husbands more robust. And these are but a few of the positive changes that have resulted. MaHaRaT Hurwitz’ ordination should not be characterized as – and in fact isn’t! – a challenge to our traditional ways. It is rather a challenge to us to keep striving for new and better ways to make our community better, wiser, and holier through opening opportunities for all Jews, men and women alike.